Sunday, 30 March 2014

Equality’s treat - What Is Equality Anyway?

Nick Cannon's White Face, The MOBOs and more. Let's see if we can't unravel what equality really means. 

This week rapper and TV host Nick Cannon presenting his alter ego, a redheaded white kid called Connor Smallnut. Labelled 'white face' (a play on the US term “black face” which in the UK we call “blacking up”), the image has caused an online storm (the dictionary definition of which is… “not a storm”). 

Nick Cannon as... Nick Cannon
People have declared his actions racist citing that if a white comedian were to do 'black face', that's what it'd be called so why isn’t it when Cannon does the same thing. Now discussing this is like skating on wafer-thin ice so we need our big girl panties on to talk about it maturely but let’s try.

Cannon’s make over is ostensibly an unimportant event, done to generate PR for his forthcoming album however it does throw up the larger and more significance topic of equality.

Nick Cannon as Connor Smallnut
In relation to this specific example, I don’t believe what Nick Cannon did was offensive because, as you’ll see from the image, a lot of time has been spent on authentically recreating the appearance of Caucasian skin. He hasn’t simply daubed his face with white emulsion, yelling, “haha look, I’m a cracker!”. This has clearly taken many painstaking hours in the make up chair to create authentic and nuanced skin tone and features.

Therefore, I’d argue this is inoffensive in the same way that Robert Downey Jnr’s depiction of a black man in Tropic Thunder (below) is not offensive either. This was not a Minstrel show where some tar-coloured grease paint was slapped all over his face so he could enforce negative stereotypes of black people. Time was spent on the execution of this look to ensure its authenticity.

Robert Downey Jnr
There is a big difference between whiting or blacking up to deride and denegrade a particular race and honestly playing a character of a different racial background in a comedic way. It’s subtle but a distinction sophisticated audiences are able to make. It’s like the difference between Jim Davidson’s Chalky character and Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ creations in Little Britain and Come Fly With Me. In The Lucas/ Walliams creations they deal with specifics, infusing their characterizations with delicious detail which makes the character real. With Davidson’s Chalky, this was a broad, broad strokes negative stereotype of Jamaican men as weed-smoking simpletons. There was nothing subtle about it. (But I ain’t mad atcha, Jim. It was a sign of the times).

Race and comedy are not always comfortable bed fellows but arguing “What if white people said/ did/ wrote that??” to counter when a minority comic mocks a dominant group is not a legitimate argument because the playing field is usually uneven. Were all things equal in all ways, or more accurately, the histories inverted, this would make total sense but they are not thus the argument is redundant.

That’s not to say comics cannot discuss other ethnicities. Chris D’Elia, a fantastic American comedian does a great bit about what happens when he makes his black friends laugh. In the wrong hands, this could be a car wreck of a routine but with D’Elia it is an hilarious and skilled observation rooted in truth and something that black people can honestly identify with.

A few weeks ago, it was International Women’s day and Twitter was awash with men bemoaning the fact that there should be an International Men’s Day. I have to admit, I was disappointing by this.

Men have been and are still the dominant gender. In most employment sectors they still earn more than women, have more opportunities and greater access to education. They are not victims of sexual or domestic violence to the degree that women are. In many fields, in many ways women are overlooked and so, International Women’s Day is a step towards redressing the balance, of celebrating all that women contribute and recognising those that are being denied basic human rights, fair treatment and freedoms. It is a positive thing and some could argue, a necessary thing. So men clamoring for a Men’s Day are proffering an ill-thought out and irrelevant case. Having a women’s day is not creating inequality it is challenging it. Furthermore, there is an International Men’s Day on November 19th but I guess it’s easier to complain than fact check.

It’s the same impulse that has people obtusely ask why gay people need a Pride March. ”Hetorosexuals don’t do that” they whine. “Why should there be quotas of black people in TV shows? You wouldn’t do that for white people” or “If there was a Music Of White Origins award ceremony that would be considered racist!”

There seems to be one fundamental thing that people who align themselves with this thinking are unwilling to acknowledge and that is the imbalance that already exists.

Were heterosexual people discriminated against and criminalised? If they had been, a Pride march  for them would be totally appropriate. I’d love to see heterosexuals marching down Pall Mall in their finest Gap outfits chanting “we’re straight, we date, get used to it!” And were minority ethnicities fairly and equally represented both on and off camera, quotas would be hugely inappropriate.

The MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) Awards are another example of on attempt to generate equality. Its genesis was as a reaction to many black recording artists feeling ignored by the main stream. Gladly, not only are the MOBOs an important event in the music industry’s calendar now but, in my opinion, are moving towards becoming redundant as this music has been assimilated more fully into the industry at large. 

That, to my mind, is the goal. Of course bridging mechanics such as the MOBOs are needed but the idea should be, that in time they become unnecessary. The same is true in the comedy world which for several years has had a separate Black Comedy Awards specifically to recognise talent that has been overlooked by the British Comedy Awards.

Of the British Comedy Awards thirteen 2013 categories, none contained black nominees unless you include mixed-raced, Zawe Ashton of Fresh Meat. No black performers or black-led shows are listed.

Indeed, in the award’s 23 year history, the only black or Asian-led shows to have won a British Comedy Award are Desmond’s, The Kumars at no. 42 and Goodness, Gracious Me.

But hopefully, in time, the comedy industry too will be one of assimilated cultures which represents the diversity visible in other genres such as continuing drama, music, sports and factual entertainment where often, BAME individuals are even over-represented. Bravo I say to the broadcasters for turning this around over the last few years.

Creating this assimilated cultural experience can often mean things like quotas rear their heads. I know they can seem unfair to those who feel that this world is a level playing field and that if you’re talented and good enough, you’ll get your chance but anyone, black or white in the media industry, for example, knows this simply isn’t how it works. Execs at the top would like to believe it is a meritocracy but deep down we all know it isn’t. (Neither is it the nepotistic Klan meeting some people would have us believe).

When you’ve been part of a dominant minority group, you can become blind to your prejudiced thinking and assumptions or perhaps threatening to see another group offered a helping hand, being given what you feel you had to fight to achieve. For example, there was a time when the Public Carriage Office wanted to encourage more Afro-Caribbean drivers to take The Knowledge and become taxi drivers. Some white drivers (and black too) took umbrage with this as they felt these new drivers were being handed an easy ride (so to speak). I’m not sure if I’m for or against this particular initiative but I can see why it was undertaken.

Black History Month is another attempt at redressing balance. Eventually, my hope is that there is no requirement to distinguish history in this way, most importantly because, there is no such thing as ‘Black History’. As I’ve said before, it is all our histories. Black history is really only telling global history from the perspective of a perceived black protagonist. These events however are a narrative that threads through all our lives and shapes the world all of us live in today.

Anyway, my point is, sometimes, actions are taken that people perceive to be creating inequality but really they’re an attempt to right a ship that has been sailing off kilter for too long.

Equality shouldn’t be simply about treating everyone the same. It should be about treating everyone fairly and creating an environment where we can all enjoy the same freedoms and rights.

A simple example. Two schools are built to exactly the same specifications right next door to each other. You’d say that is a good foundation for equality until we are told that in one school all the students are disabled. With no special access built in to either school, the logic is, this is fair as both schools are the same but clearly this is not fair at all. We must give the disabled students the facilities they need to be able to make full use of the services provided to them. 

 In our hearts we know what equality is, we just have to live it, all the time, every day and not just when it suits us.

As much as the dominant groups need to relinquish power and control, so too do those benefactors need to accept these changes with grace and let go of any blame so that we can all move towards a place where equality is a given and not a gift. 

Other posts you may enjoy: No Limits - A post on not letting circumstances hold you back, Homophobia - The Strangest Thing and My Safe - What it means to feel safe. 

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